When this unassuming book came out in the United States in 1853, a nation that was beginning to set its eyes on the Pacific and trying to live up to their belief of American Exceptionalism, Twelve Years a Slave rocked the whole nation to its foundations. “Men are created equal” says the American Declaration of Independence against their British oppressors. America then had been free since 1776. But America believed that it also had much to prove. Should they imitate their colonizers by getting territories overseas and expand their borders too? But at the same time they would wrestle against human nature itself within their borders: should colored people be called fellow ‘men’ as well? Americans have wrestled with this issue culminating in the Civil War, to which Americans fought against each other, for and against the cause of the abolition of human slavery. This unresolved issue was carried over when the Philippines was ceded to the United States in 1898. Many of these American men in their Civil War would fight in our own soil against Filipinos seen as “brown monkeys,” in what would be known as the Philippine-American War. The Abolitionist Movement and the Anti-Imperialist League in the United States may have begun with different aspirations but their principle is one and the same. “All men are created equal.” Racism, and any form of racial prejudice, is against humanity.
It was no surprise then that because of the personal account of Solomon Northup in the book “Twelve Years a Slave,” a bestseller of its time, the Abolitionist Movement gained momentum, begun by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel on the cruelty of slavery entitled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The same book of Stowe was read and espoused by Filipino nationalist Jose Rizal, as he may have had bought his copy in his short trip to the United States in 1888.
To that travel experience in the United States, Rizal writes:
"They put us in quarantine because our ship carried eight hundred Chinese; elections were then being held in San Francisco and the government, seeking votes, was making a great show of adopting rigorous measures against the Chinese to capture the sympathies of the people. They notified us, of the quarantine verbally, without telling us how long it was going to last. It lasted about thirteen days, and even longer for the Chinese and Japanese, yet on the same day they unloaded 700 bolts of silk without fumigating them…. America is undoubtedly a great country, but it still has many defects. There is still no true civil liberty. In some states a Negro cannot marry a white woman or a Negress a white man. The hatred of the Chinese leads to other Asian aliens like the Japanese being confused with them and their being looked down upon too. Customs officials are excessively severe. However, as they well say, they offer a country to the poor man who is willing to work.”
A well-thought of assessment of the United States in 1888 by no less than a Filipino. It takes each one to stand up and say, this injustice shouldn’t be.
Let’s all support this movie adaptation, that won Best Picture in the Oscars!
No to slavery. No to racism. Never again.